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|Posted January 6, 2003|
|FREEDOM IN THE FAMILY: A Mother Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights.|
|TANANARIVE DUE and PATRICIA STEPHENS DU|
|Ballantine. 400 pages. $24.95.|
|A civil rights battle through the eyes of two generations.|
|By CLARENCE TAYLOR|
Freedom in the Family is the fascinating story of Patricia Stephens Due, a longtime civil rights activist, and her daughter Tananarive, an acclaimed novelist and former feature writer for The Herald. The elder Due chronicles the rich details of the struggle she and many others of her generation engaged in to fight Jim Crow laws in Florida. Her story not only praises the efforts of those whose names do not appear in history books but also places the state battle into the larger narrative of the national civil rights movement.
|Patricia Due lucidly describes a world of segregation in
Miami and how blacks had to develop a host of strategies in order to survive, such as
challenging police power, relying on strong family ties, and developing and maintaining
black institutions. While attending Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, she
joined nine other FAMU and two high school students at the sit-in campaign at a Woolworth
in Tallahassee to protest segregation. It was led by the Congress of Racial Equality, a
national civil rights organization founded in 1942.
At first there were no threatening acts on the part of white citizens, but that later changed: 'One voice ignited the next and suddently shoppers at the store who gathered around us began to taunt us, making threats. Ya'll n -----s want a whuppin'? You're stinking this whole place up.' .... The situation felt surreal. None of us could pay real attention to the words on our books' pages. I even saw someone holding a small handgun -- which was shocking -- and no one said even a word to him about putting the gun away,
|even inside a public store. Was he going to shoot us? We had entered new, dangerous territory."|
The Tallahassee protest was sparked by the Greensboro, N.C., sit-in movement that helped galvanize thousands of students to challenge segregated public facilities. Patricia also writes about her participation in CORE's efforts to integrate lunch counters in downtown Miami. But her story is not only about her activism; she reveals her personal relationships, writing about how she defied racial taboos by becoming engaged to and almost marrying a white man. Patricia's decision to include such intimate details demonstrates her courage to stand up to southern society and adds greatly to the book's power.
Her daughter's story symbolizes the success and problems of the black freedom struggle. Tananarive grew up in a world void of the harsh racial code of earlier generations. But struggles were not absent from her life. She was raised on stories of the civil rights movement, thanks to her mother and father (civil rights attorney John Due), and Tananarive early on adopted their thirst for social justice.
Tananarive describes her involvement in civil rights, including protesting U.S. support for the Duvalier government in Haiti and her leadership in the youth branch of the NAACP. But much more interesting is her struggle for identity. Because she was raised in a middle-class household, attended a predominantly white private school and Unitarian church, with many white friends, she was far removed from working-class black society.
Tananarive candidly writes about her alienation from black society and how she attempted to cope with this problem. She confesses that as a freshman at Northwestern University, she felt isolated from the larger black student body. ''Even before I got my foot on the campus, I was out of the loop,'' she writes. ``Many of the other black freshmen had come to the campus early for various orientation programs like MEOP, the Minority Engineering Opportunity Program, but I received no such invitation.''
She admits that most students had no interest in political activism and that most of her social circle was white. And she felt ''Oreo-itis'' when she attended a few meetings of For Members Only, the black student organization. ``Someone told me once that white people were not permitted to set foot into the Black House [the FMO's headquarters], even if they were reporters covering a story. I felt like a white woman in blackface when I set foot in FMO's meetings, given that I knew and liked many whites.''
Tananarive's problem of negotiating identity is the major dilemma of the civil rights movement. While it was able to eliminate Jim Crow and create a black middle class, the movement did little to address the issue of economic justice. Thus, while some blacks were successful and moved away from poor communities, a growing number became part of what sociologists call the ``underclass, people locked in a cycle of poverty.''
Tananarive's reflection on her accomplishments and her relationship to social justice is significant because it points out that the civil rights struggle is not over: It's a continuous campaign. The disproportionate number of people of color in prison, the scourge of drugs and bad social policy that victimizes the poor are problems of what historian Eric Foner calls the Third Reconstruction. Tananarive notes that there is not one formula to try and overcome such issues but several: Although she and her sisters have decided not to replicate their parents' activism, they have joined a variety of civic groups and have reached out to those in need.
Freedom in the Family juxtaposes a life lived under segregation and one under the post civil rights era. At times the book's construction is confusing and disjointed. While the reader is presented with two intriguing accounts, the decision by the authors to write in alternating chapters leads to a lack of continuity. A much better way of dealing with the joint memoir would have been to have one complete story follow the other. Nevertheless, this book is valuable because it uncovers a history that has been far too long ignored by historians of the civil rights movement and recounts the activism of two brave souls who made and continue to make a difference in the lives of countless numbers of people.
Clarence Taylor is professor of history and the African-New World Studies Program at Florida International University. His latest book is Black Religious Intellectuals: The Fight for Equality from Jim Crow to the 21st Century.
*Note: This book review text was published in The Miami Herald of January 5, 2003.
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